Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Fairytale forests on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is big: 290 miles long and 62 miles wide at its widest point. In terms of surface area, it's the largest island in the Pacific east of New Zealand—about the size of Maryland or, if European comparisons make more sense, the size of Belgium. The vast majority of its 775,000 people live in the population centers along the coast, half of them in the Victoria Metropolitan Area at the southern tip of the island.

While Vancouver Island has one of the mildest climates in Canada and the south and east coast are comparatively dry, the west coast receives enormous amounts of precipitation. In fact, North America's wettest place is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island (Henderson Lake with 261 inches a year).

Large stretches of the island used to be temperate rainforest. However, according to Sierra Club estimates, only 1/5 of the original old-growth rainforest still exists; the rest has been logged or otherwise destroyed. Much of the remaining temperate rainforest is in undeveloped areas with no public roads, but we were able to get a glimpse in several easily accessible places.

The first was in Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park right on Highway 4 near Port Alberni. Cathedral Grove is a remnant of the ancient Douglas fir ecosystem. The largest trees are about 800 years old. If you want to read more, this is a good article.

Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park: this has got to be the most scenic outhouse on Vancouver Island

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Playing tourist on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island

We're visiting daughter #1 in Victoria, British Columbia and are spending Remembrance Day weekend on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This remote and sparsely populated area is as beautiful as it is low key—perfect to unwind.

We're staying in Ucluelet (population 1717) on the edge of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This wild and undeveloped park is perfect for hiking, sea kayaking and surfing for those so inclined. We're far less motivated in that department; we're happy to let the day take us where it wants and simply enjoy the sights. Every now and then there's nothing better than going with the flow instead of making plans.

This is the view (literally) from our hotel room in Ucluelet:

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Fall color, finally—but I had to travel to British Columbia to find it

In the Sacramento Valley, daytime temperatures are still well into the 70s. There's a sense of fall in the air, but fall itself seems determined to keep us waiting. And rain? Let's not even talk about rain, or the lack thereof.

850 miles north of Davis, things are quite different. Stepping off the plane in Victoria, British Columbia where we're visiting daughter #1, was confirmation: Here they really are smack in the middle of fall. Temperatures are in the low 50's, not in the high 70's, it rained last night, and there is fall color!

Apparently we missed the fall color peak by a couple of weeks, but I wouldn't have known that walking through Finnerty Gardens, the botanical garden on the campus of the University of Victoria. It was like being inside a coffee table photography book: one beautiful sight after another. You cannot help but feel good about the world in an environment like that. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

California Cactus Center in Pasadena

On a recent trip to Southern California, I finally managed to visit California Cactus Center in Pasadena. It's one name that always comes up when you ask locals about succulent nurseries in the Southland. I've heard more than one comment about prices being on the high side, but even critical voices agree that they have a beautiful selection of well-staged plants.

California Cactus Center was established in 1976 by Thai immigrants Zhalermwudh and Maleenee Thongthiraj and is still owned by the family. The nursery is on a relatively small 12,000 sq. ft. lot next to a busy street, but it's packed with plants. Parking is tight (just a couple of spaces) so you may need to leave your car elsewhere and walk a few hundred yards.

Let's take a look around.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Front door succulent bed makeover

Gardens are anything but static. Plants grow, and grow—and then grow some more. Sometimes they end up outgrowing their spot, requiring us to make choices whether we like it or not. Here's a case in point, the bed near our front door:

I wasn't exactly unhappy with how things looked, but the Agave schidigera in the front had flowered and was dying; the Yucca recurvifolia 'Margaritaville' in the back had bloomed for the first time and was likely going to sprout multiple heads, meaning it would get even bigger; and the Agave cupreata in the lower left was just a bit too ungainly for where it was. Beyond the Agave cupreata was a hybrid Hesperaloe (Hesperaloe parviflora × campanulata) from the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden; it had flowered only once in 9 years, taking up valuable real estate without giving us much payback.

As summer merged into fall, it became clear that this bed needed an overhaul. Since it's right next to the front door, we see it all the time. As a result, what might be a minor niggle elsewhere became a persistent thorn in my side. And who wants to live with that when you don't have to?

Taking out the unwanted plants went much faster than I'd expected, thanks in no small part to my trusted Root Slayer. (If I were ever banished to a remote island and could only bring one tool, it would be a Root Slayer.) Here's the “after” photo:

The three ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) are staying, as are the blue Agave guadalajarana 'Leon' and some of the smaller aloes along the front.

The potted Yucca linearifolia has stayed, too, it just got moved further away from the path.

One major goal was to raise up the bed and add rocks. All it took was 1 cubic yard of top soil and 1,200 pounds of rock:

Quite a few rocks were hidden under the soil,

After a few hours of concerted soil and rock hauling, the bed looked much improved, even prior to planting:

The next photo gives you a better idea of how much height we added. Even factoring in the inevitable compaction, the bed will remain at least a foot higher than it was before.

The Agave 'Red Margin' and the dudleyas you see at the bottom of the next photo had been there all along, but the plants behind the ponytail palms are new.

Also new are the totem pole cactus (Lophocereus schottii 'Monstrose') I brought home from Arizona last December:

Next photo: In the 11 o'clock position is an Aloe vaombe I bought several years ago with the express intention of putting it in this spot. At the 2 o'clock position is a fan aloe (Kumara plicatilis) that had been languishing in a pot, and to the right of it an Agave 'Snow Glow'. And finally, at the 4 o'clock position, a Cleistocactus brookeae I brought home from the CSSA Show and Sale at the Huntington this summer.

Here's a view from the front:

As you can see, I've added a bunch of plants towards front. Some will stay on the small side, others will fill in over the time. A little more work needs to be done in the back, but I'm not in a hurry now that the foundation has been laid.

New plants added to this bed:

Agave 'Snow Glow'
Agave albopilosa
Agave pintilla 2x
Agave victoriae-reginae 'Himesanoyuki'
Agave utahensis var. eborispina
Aloe dorotheae 2x
Aloe lukeana
Aloe vaombe
Cleistocactus brookeae
Hechtia aff. fosteriana
Hechtia argentea
Lophocereus schottii 'Monstrose' 4x
Mangave 'Red Wing'

I'll post plenty of updates as the plants mature.

On to the next project!

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Sunday, October 27, 2019

Marilyn and Peder's David Feix-designed garden on the San Francisco Peninsula

I joined the Bromeliad Society of San Francisco (BSSF) this summer, and the first garden I visited with them was that of Bay Area landscape designer David Feix. He's a big fan of bromeliads, succulents and tropical-looking plants, and his Berkeley garden reflects that.

As luck would have it, my second outing with the BSSF had a David Feix connection as well. The San Francisco Peninsula garden of BSSF members Marilyn and Peder was designed by David, and he's still very much involved in its maintenance.

According to David, the property is about ¾ acre (~30,000 square feet). The garden was started in 2015 immediately after Marilyn and Peder bought their new home. The only things remaining from the previous garden are the pool and the pool house as well as a few mature windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) and giant birds of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai).

Originally, the garden was surrounded on two sides by a 30-foot Leyland cypress hedge. Not only did the cypresses make the space feel confined, they were also a major fire hazard, being so close to the house. The conifers were removed two years after Marilyn and Peder bought the property, and the resulting gaps were filled in with new shrubs and perennials.

Marilyn has been a member of both the Bromeliad Society of San Francisco and the San Francisco Succulent and Cactus Society for many years. She had a massive collection in their previous place, and many of the hardier plants made the move. In fact, the greenhouse, which you will see later, was the first project to be completed on the new property.

Front garden

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

2019 ×Mangave roundup

In a March 2018 post, I proclaimed 2018 to be the “Year of the Mangave.” Sure, it was a rather self-important thing to do, but it did reflect the rapidly growing popularity of the love child between two closely related succulent genera: Agave and Manfreda.

My original post gives a comprehensive overview of the nothogenus ×Mangave. I won't repeat all the details here, but in a nutshell, mangaves have evolved from naturally occurring hybrids (such as 'Macho Mocha' and 'Rio Verde') to man-made novelties (the ever popular 'Bloodspot') to commercially viable ornamentals (the successful “Mad About Mangave” introductions by Walters Gardens).

×Mangave 'Mayan Queen' in our front yard

This evolution—“revolution” might actually be a better word—was largely driven by the pioneering hybridization work of Hans Hansen, Director of New Plant Development at Walters Gardens. If it hadn't been for Hans's neverending curiosity, innovativeness and perseverance, we might never have moved beyond 'Bloodspot'. Thank you, Hans, for propelling us into a new age of ornamental abundance! (Hans, I might add, is not just Mr. Mangave; he has filed dozens of plant patents in genera as diverse as Anemone, Baptisia, Buddleia, Hosta, Kniphofia, Phlox, Sedum, and many more.)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Tropicalesque splendor on the mountain

Even though I'm an inveterate researcher, much of that happens after the fact. When I visit a garden for the first time, I prefer to know as little as possible in advance. In that sense, gardens are like movies I haven't seen yet: The plot basics outlined in the broadest of strokes is all I want—just enough of a hook to reel me in.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of visiting a mature private garden in the Russian River Valley. The arrangements were made by a friend of mine; I merely tagged along in blissful ignorance. All I knew was that the garden was several decades old, and its owner, Diana, was a retired garden designer.

As it turns out, Diana wasn't “just” a garden designer but also a photographer and a keen observer of nature, perfectly in tune with life in her corner of the world. She graciously led us through her hillside garden, which looked much bigger than its actual size of 1/3 acre, and she talked about all the changes the area has seen in the 40 years she's lived there. I had the luxury of listening to Diana's conversation with my two travel partners while letting myself drift away from them just enough to experience the garden on my own. That's a pleasure I don't always have, but I had it that day.

Diana was only too happy to answer all our questions—about the area, about the plants, about the ornaments and pieces of art—and I could include much of that information here. But I've decided not to in favor of simply letting the photos speak for themselves.

Look at this post as a coffee-table book with very little text—just some basic captions. You'll be able to enjoy what Diana has created without having to know the how's and why's.

If you could create a garden inside a tree house, the result may very much be like Diana's garden

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Coming soon: sneak peek at what's cooking

Lately it seems I've been working on a number of different projects at the same time without getting much of anything done. In reality, though, it simply takes longer to reach the finish line when you're multitasking. To make myself feel better, here's a quick peek at what I've been up to.

Ongoing work in the backyard:

The backyard has been a construction site for years now. It does present a lot more challenges than the front yard, mostly because there is so much shade. But not just any shade—dry shade. I've read scores of books and articles on dry shade but I haven't hit upon the magic solution yet.

Through trial and error, though, I've found out that many succulents do quite well in fairly shady conditions. Even more surprisingly, that also goes for shrubby plants like manzanitas, especially the groundcover types native to the coast. They like to be protected from the hot afternoon sun and enjoy a drink now and then.

Here are some areas in the backyard that are getting closer to completion:

Thursday, October 10, 2019

New plants for our garden—always room for more!

Fall is the ideal planting time in our neck of the woods, they say ("they" including nurseries eager to, well, sell plants). While an argument could be made that for some types of plants, including succulents, spring is actually better, I'm not in an arguing mood today. Instead I want to show you all the wonderful things you can find at this time of year when botanical gardens, native plant societies and other organizations debut their new offerings. More temptation comes courtesy of commercial nurseries who routinely offer nice discounts, either on select groups of plants or even on their entire stock.

This is not the time to be disciplined so don't even bother. After all, who refuses a piece of cake on their own birthday! Buy what catches you eye and don't be afraid to take a chance on something that may not be perfectly ideal for your climate—nice surprises happen more often than you think!

But there's another source for new plants: friends and fellow plant geeks! Of course their generosity isn't limited to autumn, but there seems to be a shared desire to rehome plants before winter comes.

In this post I want to show you some of my recent plant hauls. Lest you ask, no, I don't know where all of them will go, but I home some ideas. Read on to find out.

Aloes from John and Justin, including rarities like Aloe ikiorum, Aloe lukeana, and Aloe vanbalenii × mawii as well as Aloe africana from Annie's Annuals and Aloe claviflora from Trader Joe's. There's also a ×Mangave 'Bloodspot' pup from Justin (and a nice-sized Agave applanata not shown in the photo).

On Saturday, I visited two friends in the Bay Area, John in Richmond and Justin in Pinole. Like me, they love aloes, in addition to being the nicest people. Above are the goodies they sent home with me, ranging from seedling they grew themselves to unexpected finds at places like Trader Joe's and Annie's Annuals. The seedlings are still small and will live in pots for at least another year, but the Aloe africana is ready to go in the ground now.